In anticipation of my interview I thought I’d share a bit of biography. This particular anecdote came out of some conversations I’ve had since Slash of Crimson was published, about whether people who write horror are in some way crazy (or disturbed, or subconsciously violent).
My answer is an emphatic no. I tend to agree for the most part with the stock answer offered by writers and enthusiasts in the industry, which is that horror fiction is about survival and sympathy. It’s about seeing if one can endure the worst and make it out, and about understanding both victims’ and victimizers’ motives.
But this concept is best demonstrated through an example.
And so, here’s how it went down:
One day when I was ten years old I walked into the living room and there was the woman who rents the room upstairs sitting on the couch reading a book. The book had a silver cover with the outline of a little boy’s head but no face. The year was 1980 and the book was Stephen King’s The Shining. The woman was laughing hysterically and saying things like, “No wait, no you gotta hear this,” and proceeding to read passages aloud.
She was from New York and renting a room from us in our big old albatross of a four bedroom colonial on Pine Street in Bangor Maine. I lived there with my mother, who was recently divorced from my father, who I only visited a few days a week. The rest of the time me and the other latch-key rug rats hung around after school looking for fun or trouble or both.
And so for a few weeks our boarder took to reading us choice excerpts from the novel by the dude who lived just across town. Scenes with the wasps in the hose, REDRUM, and of course Room 217 made an impression. I can’t remember if it was my friend Ed or Aaron who basically wanted to just come over and make my hot babysitter read us The Shining again.
“Hey, she’s not my babysitter, she’s our boarder. I’m ten, remember?”
It was a confusing time for our family—my mother was trying to hang on to the house, an overwhelmed city girl with no hope in a hardware store. On top of it she was making very little money in various childcare and semi-social work jobs (no license or anything) and going through the aforementioned divorce.
Thus, when she was busy with these things and I could get my hands on it, I started reading The Shining myself. I remember reading about 200 pages of it and feeling completely enthralled. Shortly after I learned there was going to be a movie and begged my mother to take me to it. It was Rated R so I couldn’t get in myself without a little more hoodlumism than I dared.
She refused at first. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Take a 10 year old to see an R rated movie that had as part of its stated intent the goal of frightening and disturbing its audience?
But I kept at it, talked about how I wanted to compare it to the book, please, please, please. Dad won’t do it. He just wants to go fishing. Somebody’s gotta do it! I kept at her while she was tired from working at the day program with adults with mental retardation, working as an office assistant at a local school or Big Brother Big Sister program or whatever her job happened to be at the time. The heating bill for a five bedroom house in Bangor Maine wasn’t cheap, hence the tenants, but even so, she was falling behind. And of course, I wasn’t really much help. I did nail a bat by throwing a boot at the ceiling one night, but then it was back to “What are YOU going to do for ME ma? Wait, I know: take me to see The Shining!”
She relented. We drove to Brewer, Maine, Bangor’s ‘sister city’ (any Mainers out their remember those ads trying to promote Brewer tourism? “Come ta Brewah!”). We went to Brewer. We saw Kubrick’s masterpiece starring Jack Nicholson, based on the novel by our local novelist.
I remember being riveted. I remember loving the film from the first scene, the whole cloistered nastiness of it. I did get a little annoyed at the scene corresponding to the ‘Inside Room 217’ chapter. Not because they renumbered the room, but because the dead lady had beige-brown peeling skin instead of purple. I had loved King’s description in the book and it was supposed to be purple damnit! Even in the re-make which is truer to the book (though in my opinion, not as fun of a film as Kubrick’s), I remember her being green.
When the film concluded we drove back from Brewer to Bangor in the banged up Datsun or Renault mom was trying to keep up payments on. I felt fine. The movie was great, gee thanks, everything’s fine.
That night I insisted we keep the bathroom light on and for the first time wondered if my dad had left any tools in the back hall so I could put a lock on the outside of the bathroom door. It wasn’t that the movie was scary, it was just that I really wanted to permanently board-up the bathroom door.
“And, um, mom, by the way, I know I’m ten and stuff, but can I sleep in your room tonight?”
“No, you said you wouldn’t do this.”
“What if I promise not to become Jeffrey Dahmer when I grow up?”
“Oh right, it’s 1980… Look, maybe the movie was a little scarier than I thought…”
I slept in a cold sweat for about two weeks and felt uncomfortable around twins at a school (little did I know I had, in fact, Diane Arbus to thank for that).
In addition to these lovely intimations, I didn’t realize something else was about to change in our life. We were about to lose the house. It was the first of a chain of events that might be called a downward spiral for us. Of course, I’m not looking to tell a story about whether I had it very hard or not hard or what degree in between. I know that I’m quite a lucky person for all the good things I’ve got and even had then—but—to the extent I’ve tasted the grim side, I’d say the four or so years that followed 1980 qualified quite well. Without going into too much detail, we moved into several apartments, become tenants ourselves renting a room with a little extra space in a friend’s house where my room for a short time consisted of a landing-like space next to the top of the stairs. I was also a bit of a sickly kid, and while I didn’t come close to actually dying, had a few nasty 1-2 week hospitalizations.
Sometimes I moved in with the old man who had a steady job and relatively nice accommodations and took you fishing and was usually reasonable in his temperament…
This never lasted, however, for reasons I won’t go into here, and because the conclusion I wish offer concerns itself less with what happened to me biographically than answering the question of whether people interested in horror stories are somehow ‘off’ or ‘disturbed.’
In truth, it wasn’t my mother or the tenant who caused what happened with the movie to happen. It was me, my own interest and persistence in this book despite being too young for it. I gravitated toward that kind of story, and picked it up and read it and made it happen. And I do not believe it was the family trauma that caused this interest. Yes, I think unusual experiences can feed art. But different people engage unusual experiences in different ways. Some people prefer Expressionist paintings and romantic comedies. Some people like pastel colors and sunshine and go for affirmation as a psychological bolster.
And for some of us, the thrill of danger, discovery and darkness nourishes what needs to be nourished. I don’t expect it to be everyone else’s preference, but I do ask audiences at large to see it in its context, to understand that it’s not an irrational or crazy interest, but rather another way in which art can be made useful for the mind.
And so, for those of you still reading and do like to get swept up in the dark, I invite you to give novella Slash of Crimson at try ($2.99 Kindle / $7.99 paperback).
And—for more fun anecdotes and discussion about horror, tune in to my interview with Dan O’Brien, Friday the 13th at 9:00 p.m. Click here for details.